As the fine-tuned machine that is the Trump Administration prepares to shift into high gear and begin the important work that will define its third month — defending another blatantly racist travel ban; eliminating health insurance for 24 million Americans; gutting the EPA and killing the NEA and NEH; boosting spending on nuclear weapons by a white hot billion dollars; tripling down on madcap wiretap accusations; pouring tax dollars galore into that “big, fat beautiful wall;” threatening to take “pre-emptive action” against North Korea — much of the national conversation about our new POTUS has shifted.
Gone are those bad old days of the How-Did-Trump-Happen Think Piece. These are the bad new days of the Stop-Trump-from-Destroying-the-World Action Alert. Resisting the hateful, shortsighted policies of a narcissist and his cabal of autocratic henchmen is the new normal — and a host of organizations like Swing Left and The 65 have sprung up to just that, joining long-time progressive institutions like the ACLU, Southern Poverty Law Center, and National Resources Defense Council.
But as Americans fight to prevent Donald Trump, Jeff Sessions, Steve Bannon, Scott Pruitt, and the rest of the Legion of Doom from dragging a kicking-and-screaming America back to its coal-powered, culturally homogenous glory days of the 1950s, it’s perhaps equally vital for us understand our history and how we arrived at this point.
In his latest book, Age of Anger: A History of the Present, Pankaj Mishra places in historical context the massive waves of populist rage sweeping the planet — from the xenophobic populism that fueled Trump and Brexit to the hatred that drives al Qaeda, ISIS, and our own domestic terrorists — and argues that all of it stems from the international pipe dream of unbridled neoliberal capitalism and democracy.
While in New York, Mishra — author of nine titles, including From the Ruins of Empire and Temptations of the West — took time to speak by phone with The Millions about the victims of globalization, nihilistic despair, the responsibilities of citizenship, and repeating the mistakes of history again and again.
The Millions: In Age of Anger you describe how around the world — from the U.S. to the Middle East — people are feeling rage and disenfranchisement at the unfulfilled promises of global capitalism and democracy. How did we get to this point, when not so long ago it looked like those same institutions were going to be the world’s salvation?
Pankaj Mishra: Perhaps we should acknowledge that we have lived in a state of ideological intoxication since 1989, since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the implosion of what was the great rival to capitalism—and the notion that there is an alternative.
But to embrace these very harsh forms of neoliberal capitalism, which hollowed out working class communities, cause massive inequalities around the world, in a way what we’re seeing is the consequences of the state of ideological inebriation where we just did not, could not see any other way of being…The trajectory seemed to have been set; history appeared to have ended. And now we are really waking up to being shocked out of our state of intoxication.
And that’s why so much in recent years has come as a huge shock to us. It’s because we were simply not prepared. We were simply not accustomed to thinking about all these processes, whether it’s capitalism or progress or growth, as essentially deeply problematic processes, and they have been, historically.
TM: I think it’s easy to draw a line between someone who voted for Donald Trump and someone who voted for Brexit. Or to draw a line between Timothy McVeigh and ISIS. I think it’s harder for people to see how they’re all so intimately interconnected. Because, essentially, they’re all reacting to the same thing? They’re all offshoots of the same failed system?
PM: We have seen so many political events in recent years through the lens of religious difference or cultural difference. When terrorism first erupted in a big way on 9/11, we tended to blame it on Islam or some defects or flaws within a particular community defined by religion. What we utterly failed to see was that terrorism always had deep political, socioeconomic roots, historically; that it has had very little to do with religion. And then, of course, you know, political disasters in other countries we blamed upon either their dysfunctional states or their failure to embrace democracy, which was the case in Russia. Which, let’s not forget, was the first country to elect a demagogue after a traumatic, calamitous experiment with free market capitalism. We forget that very conveniently. That was what enabled and empowered Vladimir Putin to become the demagogue that he is now.
But we really did not linger on these experiences, not long enough to draw any kind of lessons for our own democracies, for our own politics. It’s important to see all these different manifestations of political anger and disaffection, whether it’s people joining ISIS in the Middle East, seceding from their respective nation-states; or people saying, “We’ve had enough of the European Union, we want to take back control over our lives,” which is what the Brexiteers were saying. And, the impulse to a greater protectionism and xenophobic nationalism in the United States. I think these are all deeply linked phenomena, and linked by shared feelings of humiliation and powerlessness on the parts of large numbers of people.
TM: So, we have the same short-sightedness or the same inebriation with this system to blame for ISIS and to blame for Donald Trump?
PM: I think so. And as long as we keep these separate, we keep them apart, we’re going to arrive at a very unhelpful diagnoses of the situation, unless we see that we all inhabit the same world beset by the same set of problems and anxieties and existential fears [that] many, many people have of great change, disruptive change, the fear of being uprooted, the fear of having to reinvent yourself, retrain yourself, upgrade your skills—all these new pressures that this rapidly changing economy imposes on people around the world. This process, this experience has been very disorientating for large numbers of people, and many people simply don’t want any part of it. And now they express their disaffection in different ways, some of them extremely militant ways such as embracing terrorism, blowing up people in public places. The other way is to vote for someone who promises to blow up Washington, D.C., and blow up, deconstruct—as Steve Bannon put it—the administrative state, or simply destroy the kind of politics or dysfunctional political system that many people blame for their suffering and their plight.
TM: There’s no consensus about this, but some psychologists consider anger to be a secondary emotion, essentially something that people default to because it’s easier than feeling their underlying emotions like sorrow or despair. I’m interested in how you see emotions like sorrow, like despair, influencing or changing the growing populism we’re seeing around the world?
PM: I think once we start to see, experience the toxic consequences of having populists in power in many powerful countries around the world, very soon anger will basically revert to being this sort of more original emotion of despair, and indeed sorrow and melancholy. Because this whole desire to empower populists emerges out of a deep despair. There’s no question about it. It’s a kind of nihilistic despair, it’s like one last gamble, like, okay, we are empowering this guy who is just simply not up to the job, but he seems better than all the other politicians on offer. I won’t be surprised if many people who voted for Donald Trump are now experiencing regret, if not also deep sorrow and despair.
TM: In 2007, Arthur M. Schlesinger wrote an essay for The New York Times called “Folly’s Antidote,” in which he basically criticized George W. Bush’s administration for failing to learn the lessons of history. And that seems incredibly relevant because the populism we’re seeing today, it’s nothing really new. In a way, are we just repeating the same history over and over, generation after generation?
PM: This is something I stress in my book, that this historical moment obviously has some completely unprecedented aspects, such as social media or Twitter and the fact that demagogues can come to power using social media platforms. But there are some very deep similarities between our situation and, say, in the late 19th century, when in America, particularly, populists of all kinds, on both the left and the right, demonized immigrants, minorities, turned them into scapegoats for the suffering of many people who had been exposed to unemployment or the uncertainties of a fast-changing, increasingly globalized economy. And populists always are the beneficiaries, or far-right demagogues are always the beneficiaries of such periods of fear and uncertainty.
Fundamentally, our situation is not very different from that experienced by many peoples around the world in the last 150 years, and that includes the United States. But once you start believing in a narrative of irreversible and unstoppable progress, where you start thinking that everything is just going swimmingly and onward and upwards, then of course, it’s hard to remember these bitter lessons of history, which basically tell us that fascism, populism, far-right demagogues, they will reappear wherever the conditions of their possibilities exist.
And that can be anywhere in the world, including the United States and Britain and the world’s leading democracy, India, where I come from. No matter how many times we tell ourselves, never again, this will never be repeated, we won’t do this again, we won’t empower crazies who speak lightly about war—but this is what we can see happening over and over again.
TM: Do you see any way to prevent that from happening, to not let history repeat itself that way?
PM: Probably not, because every generation comes into the world with its own set of memories, with its own set of experiences…so it’s hard to imagine people who are wise enough to absorb from previous generations the lessons of their experiences. All of us have limited time on Earth in which we try to make senses of our own experiences. And the ways in which we process our experiences, our memories, they’re all determined by very contingent factors. So, maybe artificial intelligence will be able to help us, but I sort of doubt it.
TM: In a piece in The Guardian you wrote of our current political moment, of the Age of Anger, that “these upheavals demand nothing less than a radically enlarged understanding of what it means for human beings to pursue the contradictory ideals of freedom, equality and prosperity.” Do you think that understanding is setting in? Are you at all optimistic about the future?
PM: I don’t know, to be honest. I think what the last 200 years have shown consistently is that giving up traditional religion does not diminish our fanatical desire to believe in something, to uphold one ideology or others. So, communism died and then we embraced this particular notion of progress in which history was to end with the universal triumph of capitalism and democracy.
The kind of nuanced understanding of modern ideas that I’m asking for, or that any number of people from Rousseau onwards have asked for, I don’t see it happening on an extensive scale. What we seem to do in every historical phase is to lurch from one set of ideological certainties to another. So, we moved, in recent months, large numbers of people at least, from believing that progress is happening, it’s all working out, economies are growing more productive and all these kinds of fantasies to this fantasy of ethno-racial nationalism. To think we can go back and recreate a homogenous community, and recreate this sort of glorious past, which was unviolated by foreigners and immigrants and various minorities. We are in yet another phase of treacherous kind of fantasy really, ideological fantasy at this point.
So, to answer your question, I mean I’m not very optimistic about the possibility of a more critical understanding of our ideals.
TM: Given that globalism, capitalism, liberal democracy, they’re not going to go away any time soon—and here, in the U.S., Donald Trump isn’t going to go away for four to eight years, barring impeachment—what can people do to affect change? Are there historical strategies or strategies from other countries that we should be aware of when dealing with this kind of rise in populism?
PM: It’s very hard to prescribe what should be done. But I do think there’s a good case to be made for what we should not do. And the most important is not chase after unattainable goals. This is what we’ve been doing since 1989, feeding ourselves fantasies of unlimited growth around the world without any regard for environmental constraints, without any accounting of the political risks involved in promising extravagantly to populations around the world.
Once we realize that our resources are limited, we all have to live within our means…protectionism, end to free trade, end to globalization are not going to solve these problems. These are kind of quack solutions in many ways. Unless we really look at the broader picture here and have a historical view, we will simply keep on repeating the same mistakes and thinking of one-size-fits-all solutions that work for everyone around the world.
And I think it’s important for any political movement that arises as a form of resistance to the current administration, I do think it needs to go deeper than just talk about economic inequality or, indeed the corruption and sort of incompetence of the current administration. It is important that it takes on these values that we’ve been we’ve been sold in the last two or three decades. These are all values of hyper-competitiveness and vanity; the notion that our societies should be organized along the lines of a marketplace. This is the most damaging idea, really. And that society as such, is almost superfluous; that we are all individual entrepreneurs competing with each other in a gigantic marketplace. I mean these are some of the dominant notions governing our politics and economy.
Unless we really wrestle with these ideas and come up with different ideas of the good life, with a greater stress on solidarity and community and trust, and really some compassion, I think we will not make a great deal of progress.
TM: You’ve written nonfiction, criticism, novels. With this latest book, what do you see as your intellectual responsibility in our current Age of Anger?
PM: I’ve always thought since I grew up in the 1980s and ’90s, when I started to write, that I am responding to certain tendencies in my own time, which I think are very dangerous and could lead to absolutely awful political outcomes. And, in a way, I’m certainly very shocked by a lot of recent political earthquakes. But I’m also not surprised because I have been warning about this consistently over two decades.
And I feel that my responsibility today remains the same, which is to push back against dominant notions which people in power embrace because it helps them advance their own projects, whether it’s technocratic elites in business or politics or, indeed, people in the media, in the mainstream media, who’ve also been complicit in sort of this ideological project.
I see my role as challenging some of these dominant and hegemonic ideologies. And this is what I’ve been doing, and this is what I think I will continue to do. If I’d been born in some other period, I would have probably raised myself against some of the dangerous tendencies of that particular age. But having grown up in the post-Cold War era, I’ve found that this sort of ideology of neoliberalism has been the most dominant, the most persuasive, the most seductive ideology of our time—and it has left a lot of people feeling, not only left behind, but pushed behind, and left them very angry and discontented. And now we are reckoning with the political consequences of that.
TM: Focusing on the U.S. again, how do we survive Donald Trump?
PM: I feel that Donald Trump, in at least one way, has been a great blessing to the United States and to all progressive-minded people in the United States. Finally, there is a cause around which all kinds of people with many different political agendas can come together. They can organize; they can pool their resources; they can, at least for the time being, moderate their differences, whatever ideological, political differences they might have. Because he really does unite a large part of the country’s population against him.
And I think it’s a great opportunity to build bridges of trust and encourage feelings of solidarity amongst people who’ve felt themselves to be powerless all this time, and who are felt that they lack a sense of community. And political communities, the responsibilities of citizenship, when they are aroused, I think they are the best way of being in the world, being in the world as politically aware citizens. That is what politics ought to be all about, not something you entrust to someone you elect or someone you vote for once every four years.
So, what we’re seeing today in America, with all of the marches and strikes and [a] galvanized public, is this kind of democracy from below, which is how it should work. Part of me is quite hopeful that what we will see over the next four years is a larger democratic consolidation. And that this would be a golden opportunity for a new kind of politics to emerge in the United States, separate from the corrupted, dysfunctional political party apparatuses that—both of them—lie discredited at this point.